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[Burning Issue] Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) Quota

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The Union government has approved reservations for the OBC and EWS (Economically Weaker Section) categories within the All India Quota (AIQ) for National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET), the uniform entrance examination for medical and dental colleges across the country.

What is NEET?

  • The National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) is the entrance examination for entry to all undergraduate (NEET-UG) and postgraduate (NEET-PG) medical and dental courses in the country.
  • On April 13, 2016, the Supreme Court upheld the newly inserted section 10-D of the Indian Medical Council Act.
  • This provided for a uniform entrance examination to all medical educational institutions at the undergraduate level and postgraduate level in Hindi, English and various other languages.

What is the All-India Quota?

  • Although the same examination is held across the country, a chunk of the seats in state medical/dental colleges is reserved for students domiciled in their respective states.
  • The remaining seats —15% in UG and 50% in PG — are surrendered by the states to the All India Quota.
  • The AIQ scheme was introduced in 1986 under the directions of the Supreme Court to provide for domicile-free, merit-based opportunities to students from any state to study in a good medical college in any other state.
  • In deemed/central universities, ESIC, and Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC), 100% seats are reserved under the AIQ.

What was the reservation policy followed so far?

  • Until 2007, no reservation was implemented within the All-India Quota for medical admission.
  • On January 31, 2007, in Abhay Nath v University of Delhi and Others, the Supreme Court directed that reservation of 15% for Scheduled Castes and 7.5% for Scheduled Tribes be introduced in the AIQ.
  • The same year, the government passed the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act, 2007 providing for 27% reservation to OBC students in central government institutions.
  • While state government medical and dental colleges provide reservations to OBCs in seats outside the All India Quota, this benefit was so far not extended to seats allocated under the AIQ in these state colleges.
  • The 10% EWS quota under the Constitution (One Hundred And Third Amendment) Act, 2019, too, has been implemented in central educational institutions, but not in the NEET AIQ for state institutions.

What led to the decision?

  • The denial of OBC and EWS reservations has been the subject of protests for years.
  • In July last year, the Madras High Court ruled that OBC students too can avail reservation in the AIQ.
  • It held that the reservation could not be implemented for the then academic year for want of time, and can be implemented from 2021-22.

Let us look at the EWS quota and related information in detail.

EWS Quota: A Backgrounder

  • The 10% reservation was introduced through the 103rd Constitution Amendment and enforced in January 2019.
  • It added Clause (6) to Article 15 to empower the Government to introduce special provisions for the EWS among citizens except those in the classes that already enjoy reservation.
  • It allows reservation in educational institutions, both public and private, whether aided or unaided, excluding those run by minority institutions, up to a maximum of 10%.
  • It also added Clause (6) to Article 16 to facilitate reservation in employment.
  • The new clauses make it clear that the EWS reservation will be in addition to the existing reservation.

Inception of EWS Quota

  • EWS reservation was granted based on the recommendations of a commission headed by Major General (retd) S R Sinho.
  • The Commission for Economically Backward Classes was constituted by the then UPA government in 2005, and submitted its report in July 2010.
  • Based on this, the Cabinet in January 2019 decided to amend the Constitution (103rd Amendment) to provide reservation to EWS.

Why was the new committee constituted?

  • The committee aimed to revisit the criteria for determining the economically weaker sections in terms of the provisions of the explanation to Article 15 of the Constitution.
  • It followed the Supreme Court’s observation that the income criterion for determining EWS was “arbitrary”.

Significance of the quota

  • Empowering economically weaker sections: The 10% quota is progressive and could address the issues of educational and income inequality in India since the economically weaker sections of citizens have remained excluded from attending higher educational institutions and public employment due to their financial incapacity.
  • Constitutional recognition of the Economic Backwards: There are many people or classes other than backward classes who are living under hunger and poverty-stricken conditions.
    • The proposed reservation through a constitutional amendment would give constitutional recognition to the poor from the upper castes.
  • Reduction of Caste Based Discrimination: It will gradually remove the stigma associated with reservation because reservation has historically been related with caste and most often the upper caste look down upon those who come through the reservation.
  • In Ram Singh v. Union of India (2015), SC asserted that social deficiencies may exist beyond the concept of caste (e.g. economic status/gender identity as in transgenders).

What are the criteria to identify the section?

  • The main criterion is that those above an annual income limit of ₹8 lakh are excluded.
  • It accounts income from all sources such as salary, business, agriculture and profession for the financial year prior to the application of the family, applicants, their parents, siblings and minor children.
  • Possession of any of these assets, too, can take a person outside the EWS pool:
    1. Five or more acres of agricultural land
    2. A residential flat of 1,000 sq.ft. and above
    3. A residential plot of 100 square yards and above in notified municipalities, and
    4. A residential plot of 200 square yards and above in other areas

What are the court’s questions about the criteria?

  • Reduction within general category: The EWS quota remains a controversy as its critics say it reduces the size of the open category, besides breaching the 50% limit on the total reservation.
  • Arbitrariness over income limit: The court has been intrigued by the income limit being fixed at ₹8 lakh per year. It is the same figure for excluding the ‘creamy layer’ from OBC reservation benefits.
  • Socio-economic backwardness: A crucial difference is that those in the general category, to whom the EWS quota is applicable, do not suffer from social or educational backwardness, unlike those classified as the OBC.
  • Metropolitan criteria: There are other questions as to whether any exercise was undertaken to derive the exceptions such as why the flat criterion does not differentiate between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas.
  • OBC like criteria: The question the court has raised is that when the OBC category is socially and educationally backward and, therefore, has additional impediments to overcome.
  • Not based on relevant data: In line with the Supreme Court’s known position that any reservation or norms for exclusion should be based on relevant data.
  • Breaches reservation cap: There is a cap of 50% on reservation as ruled in the Indira Sawhney Case. The principle of balancing equality ordains reservation.

What is the current status of the EWS quota?

  • The reservation for the EWS is being implemented by the Union Government for the second year now.
  • Recruitment test results show that the category has a lower cut-off mark than the OBC, a point that has upset the traditional beneficiaries of reservation based on caste.
  • The explanation is that only a small number of people are currently applying under the EWS category — one has to get an income certificate from the revenue authorities — and therefore the cut-off is low.
  • However, when the number picks up over time, the cut-off marks are expected to rise.

Practical issues with EWS Quota

The EWS quota will come in for judicial scrutiny soon. But it’s not only a matter for the judiciary, India’s Parliament should revisit the law too.

  • Hasty legislation: This law was passed in haste. It was passed in both the houses within 48 hours, and got presidential approval the next day.
  • Minority appeasement: It is widely argued that the law was passed to appease a certain section of upper-caste society and to suppress the demands for minority reservations.
  • Morality put to question: Imagine! A constitutional amendment has been made with few hours of deliberation and without consultation of the targeted group. This is certainly against constitutional morality and propriety.
  • Substantial backing is missing: This amendment is based on a wrong or unverified premise. This is at best a wild guess or a supposition because the government has not produced any data to back this point.
  • Under-reservation of Backward Classes: The assertion is based on the fact that we have different data to prove the under-representation of SC, ST, OBCs. That implies that ‘upper’ castes are over-represented (with 100 minus reservation).
  • Rationale of 10%: There is one more problem in this regard. The SC and ST quota is based on their total population. But the rationale for the 10 per cent quota was never discussed.
  • Principle of Equality: Economic backwardness is quite a fluid identity. It has nothing to do with historic wrongdoings and liabilities caused to the Backward Classes.

Should India need reservation?

  • Duty of the state to provide equality of status and opportunity: Reservation is one of the tools against social oppression and injustice against certain classes. Otherwise known as affirmative action, reservation helps in uplifting backward classes.
  • Reservation is just one of the methods for social upliftment: There are many other methods like providing scholarships, funds, coachings, and other welfare schemes.
  • Vote bank politics: Indian Constitution allowed reservation only for socially and educationally backward classes. However, in India, it became caste-based reservation instead of class-based reservation.
  • Mandal Commission Report: Initially, the reservation was intended only for SC/ST communities – that too for a period of 10 years (1951-1961). However, it got extended ever since.
    • After the implementation of Mandal Commission report in 1990, the scope of the reservation was widened to include Other Backward Communities (OBCs).
  • The benefits of the reservation were successively enjoyed only by a few communities (or families), excluding the truly deserving ones. Even 70 years after independence, the demand for reservation has only increased.
    • Now, with the introduction of economic criteria for reservation, in addition to the caste-criteria which already existed, things have become more complicated.

Way forward

  • Preserving the merit: We cannot rule out the sorry state of economic backwardness hampering merit in our country.
  • Rational critera: There has to be collective wisdom to define and measure the economic weakness of certain sections of the society in order to shape the concept of economic justice.
  • Judicial guidance: Judicial interpretation will pave the wave forward for deciding the criterion for EWS Quota.
  • Targetted beneficiaries. The centre needs to resort to more rational criteria for deciding the targeted beneficiary of this reservation system. Caste Census data can be useful in this regard.
  • Income study: The per capita income or GDP or the difference in purchasing power in the rural and urban areas, should be taken into account while a single income limit was formulated for the whole country.

Conclusion

  • Reservation is a constitutional scheme to ensure the participation of backward classes shoulder to shoulder with all citizens in the nation-building process.
  • The EWS quota with above discussed ambiguities is the subversion of the constitutional scheme for reservation.

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